It’s a jewel of biodiversity, the so-called Galápagos of the Indian Ocean, and might also hold traces of the earliest humans to leave Africa. No wonder scientists want to explore Socotra. But it’s also part of Yemen, a country enduring a horrific civil war. Meet the Nat Geo explorer with a track record of navigating the world’s most hostile hot spots who’s determined to probe the island and empower its local scientists before it’s too late.
ELLA AL-SHAMAHI (Paleoanthropologist): So you can see a skull very clearly up there. And actually if you look closely, you can see there’s a number of other bones: long bones, bones of the foot. There’s a whole pile of bones here.
AMY BRIGGS (Host): This is Ella Al-Shamahi. She’s standing on a rocky hillside, next to a big cliff face. An archaeologist named Ahmed is showing her this narrow opening in the cliff. It’s right at eye level, and it looks just big enough that someone could shimmy inside. But Ella isn’t going in. She’s just peeking.
AL-SHAMAHI: What’s this? There is a bone here. That’s a human finger or a foot bone.
BRIGGS: Ella is on an island called Socotra. And the hole she’s looking at—someone used it as a grave site. It looks like several people were buried inside this cave a long time ago.
AL-SHAMAHI: So there’s a grave here. The good thing is, this grave looks like it hasn’t been disturbed. So that’s great. But this whole cliff face is full of these graves in these caves, and quite a few of them have actually been looted quite considerably. So that’s quite sad.
BRIGGS: Ella is an archaeologist. So to her, these graves could hold valuable information. Maybe there are clues about who these people are, or how they wound up buried in the side of a cliff.
AL-SHAMAHI: I think the question is, how old this is. And Ahmed told me there’s no dates on this, so they’re not sure. Looking at it, it definitely does look pre-Islamic.
BRIGGS: Which would mean several hundred years old, or more. But Ella’s here to search for something even older. She wants to find traces of our ancestors—the first humans to leave Africa and spread across the world. She’s looking for them here, on Socotra. It’s part of Yemen, a country going through a brutal civil war. So what do you do when following your research leads you to a war zone?
I’m Amy Briggs and this is Overheard at National Geographic, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
This week: What happens when the perfect place to do research is a place most people want to avoid? The search for stepping stones out of Africa, the ways war hinders scientific discovery, and the people working to change that.
More after the break.
AL-SHAMAHI: The thing with humans is, we are bizarre and we are curious. You know, what was the insanity that went through a Homo sapiens’ head to get on some kind of a raft and just go, Screw it, let's just keep sailing and see what happens?
BRIGGS: Ella Al-Shamahi spends a lot of time thinking about our ancestors’ baffling decisions. Her official job title is paleoanthropologist.
AL-SHAMAHI: Which is a fancy way of saying, I guess, that I'm an archeologist who studies human evolution.
BRIGGS: She’s also a National Geographic explorer. Ella grew up in the U.K. But both of her parents are from Yemen, and she used to go visit her family there.
AL-SHAMAHI: Like as an archeologist, when I walk through my dad's city, I'm just sitting there going, I can’t—this looks like something from the Old Testament. It’s mad!
BRIGGS: When Ella was an undergraduate, she realized she could use her background to her advantage.
AL-SHAMAHI: I was really interested in how humans left Africa. And just because my family ancestry is Yemeni, I kept looking at this map and everybody kept saying, Oh, we're going up—you know, we left via the Sinai of Egypt.
BRIGGS: That’s the classic, textbook explanation of how humans first left Africa. But Ella, she focused on another part of the map. There’s a narrow stretch of water separating Yemen from Africa. It’s close enough that maybe humans made it across. Maybe it’s another route out of Africa.
AL-SHAMAHI: It's not that far. It's not that deep. And so, you know, it did get me thinking.
BRIGGS: Paleoanthropology has one thing in common with real estate. It all boils down to location, location, location. And as far as Ella is concerned, Yemen is in just the right place.
It’s on the Arabian Peninsula, wedged into a corner of the Indian Ocean. At its closest point, it’s just 20 miles away from the eastern coast of Africa. So it’s right in the transition area where two continents meet.
The problem now is getting to Yemen. The civil war makes it extremely dangerous for outsiders.
AL-SHAMAHI: And I guess just because I'm Yemeni, right, it didn't seem as risky for me because I'm also—okay it's the place where, you know, some colleague got kidnapped—but also it's the place where my cousin got married. So it kind of—it demystifies this place.
BRIGGS: For several years, most of Yemen has been too dangerous even for Ella. But that doesn’t mean the whole country is off-limits. Socotra is about 200 miles off Yemen’s coast. It’s about the same size as Long Island, New York. But the landscape couldn’t be more different. To Yemeni people, Socotra has a reputation as a wild and wonderful place.
AL-SHAMAHI: Somebody once told me that Socotra was the kind of island that if a child drew an island, that's the—and I'm like, Yes! That is exactly right! You've got crazy canyons. You've got crazy desert-like things. You've got a beach that's basically like a mountain desert. It's just in—it just looks bizarre!
BRIGGS: Socotra has tall, jagged mountains and wide, rocky plateaus. And all over this island are plants and animals only found here in the wild. Ninety percent of the island’s reptiles don’t live anywhere else on Earth. But if I had to pick a favorite critter, it wouldn’t be a rare bird or a lizard. It would be a bug: the Monocentropus balfouri, otherwise known as the Socotra island blue baboon spider. It’s big. It’s blue. It’s hairy. It’s a tarantula. And it is the most beautiful blue spider I’ve ever seen.
There is so much unique life that people call Socotra the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean. Blue spiders aside, there’s one plant that overshadows almost everything else. It’s called the dragon’s blood tree. Aside from having a great name, it has a very memorable appearance.
So imagine this: You’re looking at Socotra’s dry, rocky landscape, and from it grows something that looks like a gnarly pine tree and a mushroom had a baby. It has a twisted brown trunk standing about as tall as a person, and at the top of this trunk, intertwined branches grow up and out, almost like an umbrella. And then, up on top, is a carpet of leaves that look like thin, piney needles.
But wait, there’s more. If you cut open this tree, it kinda looks like a crime scene. The sap is blood-red. But it’s this sap that gives the dragon’s blood tree its fantastic name. And this sap has been used for centuries for all kinds of things. It’s been a medicine. It’s been a dye. It’s been in makeup. And it’s also been in a varnish.
So Ella wanted to see it all for herself.
AL-SHAMAHI: Put it like this, if Socotra was in the middle of Europe, there'd be a number—a number—of scientists working there in every corner of it all through the year.
BRIGGS: In 2018 Ella traveled there on a scouting trip—basically a fact-finding mission to lay the groundwork for a bigger, full-scale scientific expedition.
AL-SHAMAHI: I was being told that once you get to Socotra, it's safe. The problem is getting to Socotra.
BRIGGS: Violence can flare up at Yemen’s airports, so flying felt risky. She checked out a couple of flight paths and ruled out both.
AL-SHAMAHI: And so there was this third option that was really out there. But I was aware that some other scientists had done it. And it was their idea; it really wasn’t our idea.
BRIGGS: Instead of flying, they could sail to Socotra. But it wouldn’t be a pleasure cruise. In fact, it wouldn’t even be a passenger boat. Ella and her three teammates boarded a cargo ship hauling cement.
AL-SHAMAHI: And a cement cargo ship, which I really need to explain, is not fit for purpose. I mean, these things are, you know, just, ugh. I mean, you know, they're something else. They’re cockroach infested. I really do mean that. I mean, I have stories. And the toilet is effectively a basket on the side of the ship that's welded on with very questionable welding and ropes. And it's got a hole in it. And obviously, you know—
BRIGGS: It's efficient.
AL-SHAMAHI: Yeah, it was something. It was memorable.
BRIGGS: There were other negatives too. Serious ones. The waters around Socotra are called the Arabian Sea. It’s a place where pirates sometimes attack ships sailing through.
AL-SHAMAHI: I mean, we were quite up to date on kind of pirate activities in the area, and what have you. We thought they were lower than previous years, certainly. But there's absolutely no doubt that we were taking a risk.
BRIGGS: In fact, that year, three ships in the region reported pirates shooting at them. Ella’s team made it to Socotra unharmed. But that’s a lot of risk to take on in the name of science, so it’s no wonder that not many researchers even try to go.
Some scientists want to change that. But Ella says, there are barriers standing in the way. Barriers too big for one person to take down.
AL-SHAMAHI: So in America and in the U.K., it's very, very difficult to work in more unstable parts of the world. Our departments, our universities, and our funding bodies, as well as our governments sometimes actually make it really, really difficult. In fact,there's a lot of grants that you simply can't get if you say you're working in an unstable part of the world.
BRIGGS: Ella says, there’s no question that her work involves risks. But so does some other research, like handling poisonous animals or exploring deep caves. Institutions will fund that research. But they’re more hesitant to fund the kind Ella is talking about. She says that creates a blind spot in the Western science world—a blind spot to places we deem too dangerous.
AL-SHAMAHI: I believe firmly that science has a geography problem. And so if you were to take out a map right now and you were to cross out all the places which are unstable, hostile, or disputed, you're actually looking at quite a significant part of our planet.
BRIGGS: Especially areas in Africa and the Middle East. Ella says the science world has created a vicious cycle. Scientists can get money to work in safer places, so that’s where they work. More attention means better results. So working in safe places seems to lead to a good outcome.
Meanwhile, the countries seen as dangerous, they get less attention. Less research means lower chances of making a new discovery. So it can seem like those places aren’t worth the trouble.
AL-SHAMAHI: And what, we're just gonna not do as much science in all of these places? That's surely a tragedy for science. It's also a tragedy for those places.
BRIGGS: Knocking down the geography problem—it’s not something that will happen overnight. But it is possible to make a dent. Even if it’s only one researcher at a time.
SADA MIRE: I mean, I come from a war zone. And I was trying to go back at some point to do something good.
BRIGGS: This is Sada Mire.
MIRE: I thought I would be back as a doctor or a human rights lawyer.
BRIGGS: But today, Sada isn’t a doctor or a lawyer. She’s an archaeologist. The war zone she came from is Somalia, just across the water from Yemen. For more than a decade, she’s been the only native Somali archaeologist working there.
MIRE: We have often an image of conflict zones—that it's a no-no area—and I can understand.
BRIGGS: Those conflict zones can definitely be dangerous. But often there are safer areas—pockets where a scientist can work.
MIRE: There are millions of people living in these places. They're not just, you know, they're not just abandoned war zones.
BRIGGS: So when Sada was getting her Ph.D., she told her British university, I want to work on Somali archaeology in this independent region called Somaliland. The university didn’t want to give her permission to go. And Sada says it was nearly impossible to secure funding.
But Somali people, they saw that she was onto something. Sada’s first project was like a grassroots archaeological survey. Her family drove her all around the countryside, and Sada asked strangers if they knew where she could find rock art.
MIRE: I had an album with pictures of all sorts of archeological sites all over the world. I had one picture of Stonehenge and I was walking around saying, Have you seen anything like this here? Well, it's something with rock art. And the rock art, they would say, Oh, yes, you're looking for the Devil's Hole!
BRIGGS: Little by little, Sada built up archaeology in Somaliland. She says it’s crucial for Somali people to be the ones doing research. For one thing, she realized that she was thinking about archaeology all wrong.
MIRE: Just like many other people, I was banging my head against the wall thinking, Why aren't people mad about the fact we have lost so many sites, that the museums have been looted?
BRIGGS: But Sada realized it wasn’t all about old artifacts dug out of the ground. Instead, she started focusing on Somali heritage—what people pass down from generation to generation.
MIRE: So, for example, I'll be excavating iron tools or pottery, but then there will be pockets of community who really have sustained traditional iron smelting or pottery making. So this is the way they are preserving. And there is a rich oral culture. And this you will never see in an archeological site unless you have this whole knowledge.
BRIGGS: That whole knowledge—it’s something local scientists have in a way that outsiders often don’t. That’s another reason to support local scientists, instead of just bringing in people from outside. Sada says uncovering Somali heritage has taught her that the country really needs more people like her. More archaeologists, more scientists.
MIRE: We have, as human beings, not only a need for food and shelter, but also a need for each other, and that is actually the sense of community. The way we build a sense of community is through culture.
BRIGGS: And she says, scientists can help with that. Since Sada started in 2007, archaeology in the region has come a long way. She doesn’t have to show photos of Stonehenge to strangers anymore. Instead, she’s rolling out a new website with 3D scans of Somali archaeological sites.
Sada fought back against the geography problem. And on Socotra, Ella Al-Shamahi thinks she can too.
AL-SHAMAHI: And for me, the question was, When did humans get to this island?
BRIGGS: Genetics research suggests only a few thousand years ago. Which is pretty recent, if you consider that Homo sapiens have been around for about 300,000 years. But Ella says, genetic analysis doesn’t tell the whole story. She wants to know what’s buried in the ground.
AL-SHAMAHI: It's an island that's very, very close to Africa. And yet the archeology there isn't well dated at all.
BRIGGS: So she teamed up with the guy who knows Socotra’s archaeology better than anybody: Ahmed Alarqbi.
AHMED ALARQBI (translated from Arabic): Generally speaking, Socotra is untouched—it continues to be unstudied.
BRIGGS: Ahmed is the archaeologist who showed Ella those burials inside the caves. He runs the local government department of antiquities. And he’s one of Socotra’s only archaeologists. In the ancient world, the island was a busy stopover for sailors. People visited from all over Africa and the Middle East, and from as far away as Greece and India.
ALARQBI: This island is unique in terms of its natural setting, the culture of its peoples and their language, and the distinct cultural heritage that is found here—it’s unlike any other area, within or outside of Yemen. This island needs to document these sites.
BRIGGS: Ahmed has logged almost 500 archaeological sites on Socotra. And he says some of them are totally stunning. There’s 2,000-year-old rock art depicting animals and human stick figures. There are ancient burial sites and ruins of old towns. There’s so much to work with, but Ahmed can’t do it all by himself.
Take this one time, when he was working on his master’s degree. He decided to catalog as many rock art sites as he could, across every nook and cranny of the island.
ALARQBI: I did this for a full month, researching field visits throughout the different regions of Socotra. Well, one day, I decided to chat with some of my friends about what I was working on—who knows, perhaps one of them had seen some site or another.
BRIGGS: So Ahmed showed pictures of rock art to his friends. One guy was like, Oh yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about. There’s a spot really close to here. Ahmed was skeptical. He wasn’t convinced that this guy knew what he was talking about. But his friend just wouldn’t let it go.
ALARQBI: I said, All right, fine, we’ll take my car and we can go to whatever area you want. This was out of civility and courtesy, because I was thinking that this guy, like, probably doesn’t know anything about this subject. He’s just a simple, average guy.
BRIGGS: So they drove to a spot just a few miles outside Socotra’s capital city. Basically right in Ahmed’s backyard. They got out of the car. And the guy was like, Here it is.
ALARQBI: When we arrived, I was shocked—utterly stunned. I was astounded at the amount and variety of the drawings that were there. Like, the drawings found at this location are unlike anywhere else.
BRIGGS: So picture a field. Part of it’s grassy, part of it’s rocky. So the rocks on the ground? There’s this spidery chicken-scratch marking all over them. Some of the markings seem to be drawings of plants, like a palm leaf that looks like a—kind of like a simple cartoon Christmas tree. In another area, it looks like somebody drew life-size feet into the rock. Some of them even have little toes etched in.
And there’s a lot more, like dozens of Christian crosses, even a drawing of a ship. All of that, just in the ground, right there. And it would’ve been almost impossible to discover unless you knew where to look.
ALARQBI: So without even thinking I hugged this friend of mine so tight—his head got so big more than once. I thanked him profusely and apologized for not listening to him the first time.
BRIGGS: This turned out to be the second largest rock art site on the entire island. The oldest drawings could date back to the 300s A.D., and finding it was a big deal. In fact, Ahmed found out that a foreign researcher had been searching for this rock art for years. The researcher knew it existed. But he assumed it had been destroyed when someone built a factory nearby.
ALAQRBI: So I showed him my photos, and he was amazed and said to me, I have spent more than ten years looking for this place but haven’t found it. How did you stumble upon this site? and I said to him, Because you all, you rely on old maps created by foreigners. You don’t depend on the locals. The locals are the ones who really know the area.
BRIGGS: But finding it was only half the battle. Protecting it is the other. This site was in danger of being totally wiped out by a planned construction project. This kind of threat is a constant problem for Socotra’s ancient sites. So it’s up to Ahmed and some locals to make sure this site stays safe. Ahmed convinced the local government to build a wall around the site. Hopefully, it will stay intact. But this is just one site. One out of almost 500.
ALARQBI: There are a number of sites here that need protection, need field visits, need research, need study. And God willing, the research will come to fruition.
BRIGGS: But Ahmed, he can’t do it alone. He says that he has no budget for all of that work. He wants help from outside scientists. But they don’t visit often.
That’s where Ella Al-Shamahi comes in. After her scouting expedition, she wants to go back to Socotra—and to bring more scientists with her. She’s planning the biggest expedition to the island in more than 20 years. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no telling when her team will be able to go. Plus, there’s always a chance that war could flare up and make Socotra unsafe.
AL-SHAMAHI: For me, just personally, as somebody of Yemeni ancestry, at some point this bloody war will be over. And it breaks my heart to kind of talk about it, but at some point it will be over. And when it's over, I know from experience and working in other parts of the world that often—not always but often—world heritage sites are one of the few things that people can actually agree on and warring parties and tribes can actually agree on.
BRIGGS: And unpacking human history in Yemen—she thinks that’s something people can get behind. Thanks to her scouting expedition, Ella knows exactly where she wants to dig. She identified caves that she calls “prime real estate”—places you’d expect ancient humans to live.
AL-SHAMAHI: Pfft. What are the chances? You know, how deep is that sediment, and how much of that sediment will be filled with old stuff, basically?
BRIGGS: Ella says the thought gives her goose bumps. She doesn’t know what she might find. Or if she’ll find anything at all. But to discover our early ancestors, and to learn more about the history of humans in Yemen, she has to keep digging.
AL-SHAMAHI: The thing that I always say about paleoanthropology is, it's like somebody has given you a few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but they haven't told you how much of a jigsaw they've given you. So the question is, How big is that jigsaw?
There’s only one way to find out. We have to keep looking for the puzzle pieces—wherever they might be.
More after the break.
Now that you’ve heard about Socotra, you’ve got to see it for yourself. Check out the link in our show notes to a story about the island and see the dragon’s blood trees through the eyes of a Nat Geo photographer.
Also, learn more about the human journey out of Africa. In Yemen’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia, scientists discovered human footprints that are more than 100,000 years old. That’s the oldest trace of humans found in the Arabia Peninsula. The oldest so far anyway.
And we also have stories about Yemen’s civil war. You can see the work of a Yemeni photographer who looks for points of light in the war’s darkness. And for subscribers, you can see a rare dispatch from life on the front lines of Yemen’s civil war.
That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, and Laura Sim.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.
Our fact-checkers are Michelle Harris and Robin Palmer.
Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.
Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes.
Thanks to Rhys Thwaites-Jones for the field audio from Socotra. And to Alex Brock for helping with Arabic translation.
The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world and funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Ella Al-Shamahi.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.
And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.
See Socotra’s wonders—including the dragon’s blood tree—through the eyes of National Geographic explorers. And check out human footprints preserved for more than 100,000 years, which could be the oldest signs of humans in Arabia.
Learn more about Yemen’s civil war. One Yemeni photographer explains why she looks for points of light in the darkness. And for subscribers, go inside the country’s health crisis and the life of violence and disease the war has brought to many civilians.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Ella Al-Shamahi.